CSO Musicians Lisa Dempsey and Gordon JamesCSO Musicians Lisa Dempsey and Gordon JamesPhotography by Kim Hunter
The term “working musician” (as in making a living at it) is not common in Chattanooga. For the most part, local musicians who play in bands at clubs do so part-time, toiling at day jobs while awaiting their big break or simply fulfilling a fantasy by being in a band that’s paid to play one night a week.
But there is a sizeable group of musicians here who truly deserve the title. They are the professional musicians of the Chattanooga Symphony who have spent their lives mastering their instruments while mostly existing in relative obscurity as members of a symphonic orchestra which is chiefly represented by its conductor.
Unlike their counterparts in popular music, fame is not the guiding star for these musicians. Rather, it is simply the opportunity to play a form of music that, while revered, is constantly threatened by the budget woes that increasingly plague the arts everywhere.
In that respect, life as a “working classical musician” is not unlike that of professional athletes. There is a defined season of play, and while your specific role is valued, you must be a team player. Despite your talent, your position in the organization is never certain and competition is fierce. Ego and passions run high, but a symphony is nothing if not a team, its sound and performance depend on, well, a symphony of players. These musicians, like their major league counterparts, are often obligated to play an additional role as a community ambassador and, when you are not in a top-tier market, finances are almost always a concern. You must wear a uniform (of sorts)—in this case formal wear, which is expensive and less than comfortable for some—and maintain a sense of decorum. Like athletes, common folk tend to hold classical musicians to a higher standard.
Still, it is a life these musicians sacrifice all else for. For a glimpse behind the gilded curtains of the Tivoli Theatre, home of the Chattanooga Symphony, we recently talked with two of the orchestra’s veteran musicians to find out what it’s like to hold a much sought-after position with a professional symphony.
Gordon James and Lisa Dempsey occupy pivotal chairs within the CSO and are both seasoned and respected masters of their respective instruments. James holds the principal horn position and has played with CSO since 1987. Dempsey is a violinist and associate concertmaster who took her chair with the symphony in 1998.
When we meet a few days before the CSO’s season opener, both are dressed casually and are preparing for a series of rehearsals prior to donning formal attire and taking their chairs on the Tivoli stage.
Coming back to the Tivoli is familiar, says James, but not necessarily easy. “It’s like going back to school,” he says. “We don’t work in the summer and haven’t played so much. Many people don’t realize that we don’t have a lot of rehearsal time.”
Indeed, the curtain is almost ready to rise, and while its members have practiced the music on their own, they will have only four rehearsals across three days as a unit.
The orchestra is also beginning only its second season under new conductor Kayoko Dan, the youthful violinist who succeeded Bob Bernhardt as conductor and musical director of the CSO last year. Dan’s role as a leader is crucial, both affirm. As the first woman (and Asian-American) to hold the post, Dan is much more than an oft-photographed figurehead wielding a baton. Her musical choices and direction affect the entire organization.
“She’s young, but she’s doing fine,” James says. “She’s growing as time goes by and coming into her own at the podium.”
If Dan is the new face and “parent” of the CSO, the musicians are her family, James says, and Dempsey agrees. They are a tight-knit group who form close relationships over the years, both tell me.
“There’s not been a lot of turnover until this year,” Dempsey adds. “Most of us have been together for the past 10 years.”
The exodus this season is uncommon, but not unprecedented. Despite their comfort or relative security, classical musicians are not without aspirations.
“Some climb the ladder,” Dempsey says, “looking for higher pay or playing with ‘The Big Five’ in New York—that’s a dream for many musicians.”
Dempsey and James, like many of their colleagues, find fulfillment outside their roles with the CSO in the off season. “We all do other things,” Dempsey, who is also the CSO’s co-orchestral librarian, says. It’s a position she enjoys and one she says she’d pursue professionally if she didn’t play. In addition to her heavy off-season performance schedule, Dempsey acts as head librarian for the Aspen Music Festival.
James substitutes with the Huntsville Symphony and is the adjunct horn instructor at UTC, Lee University, Southern Adventist University and Covenant College, as well as acting as secretary/treasurer of the local chapter of the Chattanooga Musicians Union.
While the annual challenges of funding, salary and benefits confront classical musicians as they do everyone, both see a silver lining. Dempsey says that of graduating classical musicians each year, one in 600 secure a chair with one of the nation’s orchestras, a statistic that raises the bar.
“[Classical] musicians tend to stay with one orchestra, and the quality goes up,” she says.